Spiritual But Not Religious

An atheist friend once caught me off-guard when she declared, “There’s a reason for everything.” It turns out she meant there is a rational, scientific explanation for everything that exists or happens, not that there is a Divine Purpose behind events. Her faith is in scientific progress to bring safety and stability to her life and to reveal life’s mysteries, given enough time. Despite this apparent secular worldview, she calls herself spiritual.

As for so many, her spirituality focuses on personal growth and her desire to be in sync with natural forces governing the known world and holding it together. This spirituality also favors ethical, psychological, and political interests more than metaphysical ones. There is no necessary belief in the existence of a spirit realm or souls that live on after the body dies, much less faith in a religious concept of God.

This disenchantment with traditional ideas of God and long-established creeds has led to popular use of the phrase spiritual but not religious (SBNR). The implication is that individualized beliefs are more consciously arrived at and are more sophisticated and equipped to handle the complexities of modern life. World religions based on the embrace of objective truth are assumed obsolete – too rigid and narrow to serve the needs of individuals in the Information Age. Acclaimed film director Martin Scorsese lamented the difficulty getting top actors interested in his religious-themed movie Silence, saying, “Several actors didn’t want to get involved with anything that smacks of religion in any way.” It’s curious that those calling themselves religious are usually comfortable calling themselves spiritual, but the point of SBNR is to maintain a clear distinction from religion.

The phrase spiritual but not religious was popularized by Bill Wilson, one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. He believed the desire for intoxication was primarily a spiritual impulse and that alcoholics were unconsciously trying to “grope their way to God” as they sought reliable fulfillment in alcohol. In Bill Wilson’s view, religious belief requires a higher order of maturity and complexity than does mere spirituality. But even as he greatly respected religion, Wilson made clear that Alcoholics Anonymous did not require religiosity for recovery from addiction. His use of SBNR was a practical and wise acknowledgement of legitimate emotional wounds some alcoholics suffered in their religious upbringing. A large number of alcoholics also had an aversion to anything churchy, stemming from religions’ typically moralistic approach to alcoholism. For him SBNR was a frank statement of humility, the need for rudimentary spiritual assistance, and was not necessarily a declaration of permanent independence from religion. Wilson insisted, “…good theology ought to ask every man’s question: Do I live in a rational universe under a just and loving God, or do I not?” His AA sought to provide emotional room for alcoholics to get physically well while still wrestling with that question.

Wilson and his co-founder Bob Smith chose the term higher power, not highest power or God, to assist alcoholics in their efforts. Wilson and Smith might have found it ironic and maybe disheartening to see the modern practice of the SBNR idea move away from religious thought, rather than towards it.

So then many calling themselves SBNR do believe in a non-material realm and even cite experiential “touches” of the transcendent without specific mention of God. This person finds in a spiritual practice a bridge to the mysterious, and a way to gain agency over fearful and potentially threatening things in the experience of living. Love is often identified as the ultimate spiritual value, having mystical and protective properties within itself without a necessary connection to deity. God is love evolves into Love is God, with fear being the primary antagonist to spiritual growth. Oprah Winfrey espouses this approach in her faith declaration, “I believe every single event in life happens [as] an opportunity to choose love over fear.” The objective is a therapeutic one, based on a personal growth model of spirituality rather than on obedience to the will and purposes of one God, or gods, or a higher power. The road map to love means first loving the self: one must listen to oneself and follow one’s own dreams.

This approach may even lead to organized groups and communal rituals, but without a defined object of worship that is higher than the self, the desire for self-fulfillment becomes the foremost concern and the primary power with which to contend. One’s intentions are imbued with a quasi-omnipotence, attaining divinity status. If one’s intentions are faithfully released to the larger Universe, then the divine in oneself aligns with the divine in the Universe to bring the intentions to fulfillment, goes the belief.

American political discourse increasingly appropriates this self-help language to stigmatize opposing views as necessarily fear-based. Political opinions and actions are less frequently assessed in a moral context as right and wrong, or even in a utilitarian way as better or worse, but instead as choices between one view or a fear of that view. A SBNR might dismiss an opposing point-of-view as a symptom of mental instability or as an irrational fear: something-phobic.

Despite the potential inaccuracy of that linguistic ploy, it may well be that the reaction against fear, or more specifically anxiety, is common ground for both the self-described SBNR and the religious person. Every human being has a keen desire to be free from internal anxiety. This is not a new concept emerging from the uncertainties of modern life. How to understand anxiety within the human condition reflects ancient questions and conundrums between philosophy and theology. Do we reason our way to transcendence or are we awakened to it, as something revealed? Is spirituality uncovered or birthed? Are human beings like onions whose crusty, brittle exterior just needs to be peeled off to reach the pure center? Or are we tainted throughout and in need of transformation? Every side to these questions have had their true believers for thousands of years.


How then does the modern seeker find clarity with such long-standing questions that have challenged the greatest minds of all time?  I’m exceedingly reluctant to say what others should do, but here is an account of a spiritual experience that gave me some clarity I desperately needed, illuminated beyond intellect.

At age 21 I decided to give college life another try. My previous attempt was interesting but directionless, so I quit and went to work. After several low-paying jobs serving affluent people, I was resentful. So I resolved I’d never be among those who bowed to the rich. Back at a different university, I was hungry for knowledge and ambitious to learn something useful.

Despite my optimism I was very nervous about my future. But living with chronic anxiety was so normal for me that I wasn’t aware life could be conducted any other way. At the time I described myself as spiritual but not religious, though I understood very little of what I meant by that. In the midst of my confusion I had the first truly spiritual experience I am aware of, which happened shortly after my arrival on campus.

It was a Saturday afternoon and I was lounging around my dorm room when there was a loud knock on the door, a guy from down the hall. “Hey JJ, you wanna make twenty-five bucks for two hours work?” You better believe I did. This was 1979 when minimum wage was three dollars an hour, so this was good money. Off I went with him. “What are we going to do?” I asked. “Sell t-shirts,” he said.

A famous rock band was playing at the big arena on campus and there were already long lines of people outside waiting to get in. I was introduced to the boss man and he explained the deal: we were to sell bootleg t-shirts outside the arena. The official and legal merchandise happened inside the arena and were totally controlled by the band. We were illegal so keep your head down, he said, and if you see the campus police, keep moving. T-shirts were $5.00 each and I was given a box of them filled to the brim.

The boss let us in on an innovative sales technique: since we would run out of XL sized t-shirts first, we could still sell a t-shirt to someone requesting XL by reaching into the box with both hands, one hand holding a shirt and the other holding the tag that had the size labeled on it. Then, he instructed us, quickly pull out the t-shirt with one hand, thus ripping off the tag in the process. This way the buyer couldn’t see they were getting a medium or large-sized t-shirt instead of the XL they requested.

You might think cheating the customer this way would arouse pangs of conscience. But at that time, despite my claim to a personal spirituality, I placed greater value on personal shrewdness. I was determined to never play the fool for anyone. I found satisfaction in ripping off institutions and groups of people, especially if I considered the groups to be wealthy. It was vanity and avarice that really governed my thinking, but I easily deluded myself into believing I was striking a blow for the common man. I was a big fan of Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman the Yippie leader who advocated small acts of subversive criminality to undermine the established order.

On the surface I affected a confident pose about myself, but deep inside I felt the confusion of my sloppy value system. In a conversation with a “religious” guy a week before I had asked, quite sincerely, “How do you know the difference between right and wrong?” He said, “When I’m considering the morality of an action, I ask myself two questions: Does this please God, and does this glorify God?” I had no idea what he meant by glorify God. It sounded like the kind of high-handed religious talk I was moving away from. Pleasing God seemed simple enough though, in theory. Just do good deeds.

Back at the arena I began walking around with my box of t-shirts. They sold quickly, with people gathering around thrusting five dollar bills at me. In twenty minutes I had sold several dozen and I had a fistful of cash to show for it. I was feeling flush with success, but then I reached the point where someone asked for an XL t-shirt and I had no more of them. As instructed, I accomplished the maneuver of slyly removing the tag, thus cheating the customer.

As I mentioned, this normally wouldn’t have bothered me much. I would have fairly easily convinced myself that the larger objective of getting over on a big corporation, even a rock and roll one, justified this small indiscretion against the customer. But for some reason those arguments weren’t available to me this time. My stomach felt queasy.

I stepped aside to sort out my thoughts. The two questions I’d heard the week earlier came unbidden to my mind: Was this pleasing to God? Was this glorifying to God? My stomach still hurt.

No, I decided, what I was doing was neither pleasing to God nor glorifying to God – how could it be? I immediately found the boss and gave him all the money and remaining t-shirts and told him I quit and didn’t want any payment. “What’s wrong?” he asked, holding the wad of cash. I surprised myself by saying, “It’s not honest,” the words coming out all by themselves. He smirked and said, “You’ll learn someday.”

As I walked back to the dorm a startling euphoria settled on me. At the same time I felt lifted up, like I was walking on air, relieved and happy. Back in my room I put on a record, a Beethoven symphony. The music rose and I could almost see it filling the tiny room and swirling about. I was possessed by a beautiful sweetness, completely free from anxiety, at least for now. This moment was clear, utterly sober and superior to any experience I had before. Something far more expansive than myself was present and drawing me closer.

I mark that day as my first conscious contact with a spiritual – – something. Or was it religious? This much I understood: it was something new I lacked within myself by nature, something far grander than I could then fathom, and something that changed the way I felt about living. It was exciting, like finding a treasure or falling in love. I wanted to pursue it.

I pondered my religious friend’s advice. Pleasing God was about choosing right over wrong, I reasoned. But my understanding of right over wrong was incomplete, I intuited, until I could understand the second question. What was it to glorify God?

The following Summer some help came my way. I was leisurely strolling in downtown Manhattan on a beautiful sunny day, feeling great. A man sidled up next to me, matching my pace. It was a workman carrying a large package on his shoulder.

“How’s your faith?” he asked.

A little surprised, I said, “Uh, good I guess.” He had the word Shekinah emblazoned on his t-shirt.

“What’s Shekinah?”

He said, “God’s glory.”

“Really?” There it was again. “But what is it?”

“Shekinah is the manifestation of God’s presence on Earth. With you, maybe. See ya.” He turned sharply into a building and was gone. A shiver of recognition passed through me, thinking of my uplifting experience of months before. Could that euphoria be a Shekinah? What an interesting thought this was. I no longer cared if this new glow I had was called spiritual or religious or even weird – it was just too splendid to worry about that.

This guy used the word presence – yes, it was that. A veil I didn’t know existed was lifted, certainly not by my powers of reason or imagination. A highly personal presence that was not mine had beckoned me in. It was glorious, and sublime. If this was God’s glory on Earth I was more than willing to call it Shekinah and follow where it led me.

Whatever Shekinah was, it banished my anxiety. I wondered what more I could do to glorify God. Maybe all I needed to do was stay out of the way and Shekinah would come to me as before.

In the end I settled on calling this a spiritual experience. It changed me and set me on the spiritual path I’m on to this day. A path that draws me along – I take steps without knowing exactly where the path will lead. But as I take them my natural anxiety is muted and I am aware of a growing assurance that I am going to be okay.


This entry was posted in addiction, Alcohol and drinking, Depression, freedom, happiness, Joy, Kierkegaard, meaningful life, philosophy, recovery, sobriety, Spiritual But Not Religious, spirituality, Suffering, Teun Hocks, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Spiritual But Not Religious

  1. John Loonam says:


    Not sure which of these email addresses is real. Any email is an act of faith really – who knows where it goes?

    I loved this post – you write very clean and beautiful prose about such challenging subjects. I also appreciated that this did not turn to the question of spiritual v religious. I wrestle with that one myself and, though I wanted your insight on it, was not sure I wanted to revisit it. As it turns out, I got your insight in a nice quiet way, as you refuse to take up the notion of the two in tension.

    I read an article by a nun not long ago that was a bit of a rant. She told the story of how whenever she gets on an airplane the person sitting next to her, upon discovering her vocation, needs to explain that he or she is spiritual but not religious. She claimed to politely listen to them, but in this essay she ranted about how that was an easy way out – avoid the difficult questions and insights of thinkers working systematically through spiritual questions, assume that your spirituality can be more pure alone than it could be in a community. In a way it was a more sophisticated guilt trip than those supplied by my memories of St Agnes, but its sophistication made it potent.

    I have been reading the novels of Marilyn Robinson – the Gilead trilogy (of which I will start the third novel when I finish this email). Are you familiar with them? They tell a more or less modern version of the prodigal son story – set in Gilead, Iowa in 1955 or so – there are references to civil rights demonstrations in Montgomery but I am not exactly sure if it is the bus boycott or the children’s crusade. The ne’er do well son of a local minister returns out of the blue to try to make peace with his father. The first novel is told from the point of view of a friend of the minister who is also a minister – lots of talk about predestination and grace and forgiveness. The second novel tells the same story from the pov of the prodigal’s sister. Still some predestination and grace and forgiveness, but also talk of what makes a family, a home, of alienation and self-loathing. The third will be told from the pov of the friend minister’s wife – she apparently has some other ideas about how to live that her husband doesn’t know much about. Anyway, she takes these questions as seriously as anyone I know of writing today and manages to make almost plotless books that are page turners.

    Anyway, that is the book review portion of this email.

    I am struck, in my review of those novels, in your essay/blog post and in my own thoughts about this, by how much of our thought around spirituality is corrective – is aimed at fixing something wrong with us. I understand that we turn towards the spirit because we have previously been turned away from it, that the spiritual journey must in some way be about improving a life of the spirit that is in some way wanting (or else why journey?), but still, it seems there might be another way. Can I journey in the spirit as a way to build, extend, stay with the connection to the spirit I already touch? Can I turn to the spirit to celebrate that which is already loveable? Already loving? Of course the answer is yes in some easy way – any decent Easter sermon might tell me that. Yet it is rarely how we approach these things. I certainly see your journey this way, despite its possible roots in t-shirts and chicanery. I might date my own spiritual journey to some similar sense of being personally weak, confused, alienated, wanting… But that is not what sustains such journeys, I think. It is when I am most aware of my need for the journey (and hence some fault within myself) that I am most likely to turn away from it, to procrastinate, to accept the status quo. It is the joy that really drives the journey, which may be why it happens in fits and starts.

    I have been listening to John Coltrane’s album “Ballads” while writing this, and at the risk of being pretentious and cliched, I do get that chasing sense of joy in music, at least some of the time, when the music is right and I am really listening.

    OK, this is too heavy. A student gave me a batch of brownies today to thank me for writing her college recommendation. Brownies are also cool.

    Thanks for including me on your list. I enjoy reading them and obviously they get me thinking.

    Your roomie,

    jl >

  2. Mr. Frank says:


    Reading your description of that “Shekinah” moment you had in college; and the follow up clarification by the seemingly random worker on the street, brought me back to similar experiences for me. I hope you don’t mind me sharing.

    I was in high school and parking cars at a popular disco on weekends in 1980. People would typically offer a few bucks for a tip when you pulled their vehicle up. Sometimes you got stiffed because patrons were so hammered and distracted; maybe even broke, coming out of club, they didn’t to tip you. Other times they were very generous offering $5 and $10 bills and the occasional $20, which was exciting.

    We pooled the tips and split them at the end of the night between the car hops. One night, I found myself getting $5 and $10 tips, even $20 like crazy. I was pumped, even some regulars, who never tipped, floated a ‘fin’ that night. I would hold up the bills to the other hops and smile saying: “Gentlemen, we are having a good night tonight.”

    I came to find out, the manager of the car parking company was feeding the customers these higher bills to test me and the other employees for honesty. To see if we were turning in the tips, or holding back some of the big bills for ourselves. Truthfully, the thought never crossed my mind. I had been brought up with a sense of right and wrong, a moral reference that it was wrong to steal, be deceptive, or betray friends. I was happy we were all having a good night.

    The only reason why I knew about this scheme was because I passed the test. The manager brought me into the booth at the end of the night and told me what was going on. I admit, I had mixed emotions. On one hand, I was disappointed when I realized we didn’t really make all those tips. But I was shocked to find out, one of the employees, one of my friends, did not pass the test. He took some of the big bills. He was never called back to work.
    Clubs closed at 4am and by the time we were finished, I drove home as the sun was rising. We normally went out to a diner after work for breakfast; that day, we did not.

    I was thinking about what happened on the way home. It occurred to me that I should be offended that I was tested this way, and that they didn’t trust me after working there for some time. Then, the ‘shekinah’ moment came…I was exceedingly glad that I passed the test. There was a presence, a feeling of peace overwhelmed me, that I pleased God. I was very happy. I was also relieved, thinking for a moment what if I compromised, and took a few bills for myself? What a lonely place that would be, driving home without a job, guilty. Like dodging a bullet, doing what was right actually saved me from calamity. I can to find out later this was walking by faith, not by sight and it was rewarding. Oddly, I even felt sadness for my friend who was fired. And felt compassion towards him. A friend, a Jewish Christian, once called moments like that a “Holy Heart Massage”. A personal moment, with the God of Creation.

    Some time later, driving past an accident on the highway at night, an overturned car, that seemed to have just happened. I spotted a man walking down the road as I pulled over to help. I rolled down the window and yelled to him. “Do you need any help?” He ran to my car and jumped in…I began driving to look for a cop, (no cell phones yet) and asked him if he was “Ok”. The man looked at me, and told me straight out: “You must be born again.” My heart understood but my mind was distracted in unbelief, thoughts like: “Wait, what?”, “Weren’t you in that accident?”, “Why did you just say that to me?” “Who is this guy?” “What is going on?” But deep inside, I knew what he said was true, even though I didn’t understand it all. Then a cop car appeared, I flashed him with my lights and pulled up to him and explained where the a client was…he took off. I dropped off the man at a gas station. He said he ran out of gas. I asked him again about the accident and he responded: “What accident?”

    I never saw him again. But I did become born again some time after that, thank the Good Lord. And thank you for your article, Jerry, which stirred up these memories. I hope you don’t mind my sharing these words that later she’d light on my experiences:

    “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels.”-Hebrews 13:2

    “Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
    -John 3:3

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